When Eric Lomax, a recently married man, freaks out his wife, Patti, with a seeming seizure, and she can’t get him to explain why, she seeks out one of his friends for the full story. The Railway Man is a tale of horrific torture in a World War II Japanese labor camp in Thailand that culminates in a confrontation between Lomax and an interpreter who was responsible for much of his pain. It is a true story.
When Eric Lomax (Colin Firth) meets Patti (Nicole Kidman) on a train, he is smitten. A real railway enthusiast, he helps her make a connection to make up for her missing her original connection. We learn that he really loves trains – he knows all the schedules and connections the way we know our names.
Decades earlier, during the war, Lomax (Jeremy Irvine, War Horse) worked as a signals operator in Singapore until the Japanese took the city. Along with the rest of his fellows, he was sent to help build a railway in Thailand. At first they are treated reasonably well, but when he and his friends build a radio receiver to learn what’s going on in the rest of the world, it’s discovered and, believing him to be a spy, the Japanese torture him to find out what he knows.
Nagase Takashi (Tamron Ishida) was the interpreter who translated questions to Lomax and his replies. The interrogations soon move beyond simple question and answer sessions to beatings with bamboo shoots, waterboarding, being caged like an animal and shut in a hotbox cell – which is where was found by Allied soldiers.
It was an experience that would change anyone, and the confidant, cheerful Lomax who went into the camp was reduced to a nervous, fearful cautious man whose only solace was his enthusiasm for the railways. He and friends met occasionally after the war, but never spoke of their experiences – a code of silence that almost destroyed his marriage.
When Lomax’s PTSD begins to make their marriage overwhelmingly difficult, Patti seeks out his best friend, Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard) and persuades him to tell her what happened. This leads her to discover that Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada, Helix) is still alive. A tragic event leads Lomax to seek out Nagase – who now makes a living as a tour guide at the Kempeitai War Museum. While Lomax sets out to subject Nagase to the same kind of pain he suffered, he just can’t continue past a point far less vicious than anything he endured.
Lomax’s story, first set down in his book, The Railway Man, is one of pain, endurance and unexpected redemption. The movie, which is a tad too deliberately paced does a mostly excellent job of telling his story.
What takes The Railway Man above and beyond the expected is a deeply moving performance by Firth, who is the personification of the expression ‘still waters run deep.’ Even before we learn of the tortures he endured, or even his PTSD episodes, we can sense that, beneath his calm – even placid – exterior there are depths of pain and suffering. Firth brings a sense of inner turmoil with a few minute changes in expression, or a hesitation to look into Patti’s eyes.
It certainly helps that Irvine looks like he could almost be a young Firth – his commitment to the role makes every blow convincing. His portrayal of the young Lomax’s transformation from confident, intelligent and capable soldier to pain-wracked hulk is utterly believable.
Where the film errs, however slightly, is in the casting of Nagase – Tanroh Ishida and Hiroyuki Sanada look nothing like each other. Ishida’s performance is very one-note and holds absolutely no hint of anything even remotely resembling humanity – which makes sense with the story being told by Lomax – but that lack of resemblance to Sanada makes the latter’s sensitive performance seem to come out of nowhere.
Director Jonathan Teplitzky does a serviceable job of moving the film along, but there’s nothing particularly compelling about the film, technically. It’s the performances that involve – and the truth of the story, which is emphasized by photos of Lomax, Patti, and Nagase that are shown under the closing credits.
A remarkably subtle score by David Hirschfelder (The Truman Show, Elizabeth) greatly enhances the proceedings, but The Railway Man works mostly because of Firth, Irvine, Sanada and Kidman. They are brilliant.
Final Grade: A-
Poster and photo courtesy of eOne and The Weinstein Company